This post, the 14th in a series through Revelation, finds us in the second set of seven judgments. We will look into chapters 8 and 9. A recording of this post is available on Shofar Durbanville’s Youtube channel.
In our day, it is often easier to imagine God as the Sacrificial Lamb slain for our sins than to see him as the Sovereign Judge over all. That is why Revelation 5 reads so much easier than chapters 8 and 9, where the Lord rains down disasters on the earth as his redemptive judgments on sin. What do these chapters on divine judgment reveal about God’s character and relation to mankind?
Yes, God hears you! Unfolding the first six seals of the scroll unleashed chaos and cries on earth (ch 6), followed by a command to cease all judgment so that God’s servants may be sealed to be spared the great Day of Judgment (7:1-3). As the 7th seal is opened heaven becomes still, “silent for about half an hour” (8:1). John then describes how God’s full attention is given to the prayers of the saints (8:3-5).
To the churches who received this letter at first, oppressed economically, excluded socially and persecuted religiously – in addition to the periodic earthquakes, famine and threat of war they faced – this was so necessary to hear. It reassured them that “You matter; I listen to you.” Faced with the daily troubles, their faith in an Almighty, Loving Father and hope for the return of Christ, the Prince of Peace, was waning. They needed to be reassured that indeed, despite all the madness in the world and all the magnificence surrounding his throne, God pays attention to every single prayer of the simplest of his saints. And these prayers are pleasing to him, like the scent of incense burning (8:4).
Yes, your prayers are powerful! But do these prayers make a difference? Long-term suffering can often lead one to doubt whether God is good, or whether one’s prayers are good. This was certainly the case for these seven churches in Asia minor, the recipients of the Revelation. Their prayers did not seem to change their circumstances because the suffering only intensified over time. That is why this hopeful vision of prayers as incense mixed with fire from God’s altar and poured out in wrath on the earth (8:5-6), brought hopeful encouragement that indeed their cries are heard, and their prayers are effective. Christ’s kingdom was advancing by the power of their prayers. These disasters that surrounded them were simply “birth pains” of the emerging Kingdom of Christ – all affected by their prayers.
Yes, God is just! If God is just, why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? Does God not see? Does God not care about the injustice and oppression of the vulnerable and the righteous? These are the age-old questions believers have wrestled with throughout the ages (Psalm 73; Jeremiah 12; Job 21, etc.). This was also the cry of God’s saints (6:10) during the vile and violent Roman Empire into which John wrote this letter. The vision of their prayers being mixed with fire from God’s altar, poured out over the earth, resulted in “noises, thundering, lightning and earthquakes” (8:5). This phrase is repeated another two times in this middle section of the book when God’s judgments are poured out, notably in response to the blood of his martyrs (11:19; 16:18; refer 4:5). The image of “lightning, thunder and voices” alludes to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16), and occurs throughout Scripture about God’s justice and judgment (e.g. Psalm 77:18 and Hebrews 12:18).
The seven trumpets which follow (8:6-9:21; 11:15-19) are God’s just judgment response in the prayers of the saints. Christ’s message in this vision to these seven churches is “Yes, I am just. These judgments on the nations are my response to your prayers for justice.” But how do these disasters help God’s people?
The judgments of the seven trumpets contain allusions to the plagues of Exodus by which God delivered his people from the oppressive, wicked Egyptian Empire. Pharoah, like Ceasar, demanded his subjects worship him as the Sovereign Son of God. We read of water turning into blood, hail, darkness, locusts and the death of its citizens. These allusions would have been very encouraging symbols of hope to the early church, oppressed within the Roman Empire ruled by a man who demanded worship as the Sovereign Son of God. If God had delivered his people once, he could do it again!
We need to be reminded that the apocalyptic genre of Revelation does not allow us to take these images literally: that blood literally would fall from the sky (8:7), or that demon-like militant locust would roam the earth (9:3-5). These are symbols of various forms of destruction – natural disasters and warfare that are meant to shake earthlings out of their rebellious deception that mankind can live independent of God’s just, benevolent rule.
What are these trumpet-judgments? Trumpets (Greek salphinx) signify two things here: firstly, the blasts of trumpets accompanied royal decrees, and these trumpets were typically blasted to announce a military victory. In this context, both apply: By these blasts, the Lamb announces the orders of God’s redemption of his kingdom, and with every judgment announces his victory over and against the devil and the wicked kingdoms in this world.
The first four judgments (8:7-12) point to various forms of natural disasters that would affect significant climatic change, causing a crisis in food production, freshwater supply and economic sustainability worldwide. These allude to the plagues which destroyed Egypt and assert God’s sovereignty over all of creation.
The next two trumpet judgments point to the woes accompanying the military conquest of an invading army. The 5th trumpet blast releases a terrifying army likened to armoured locusts (9:1-11) lead by “The Destroyer” (Heb: Abaddon, 9:11). The 6th trumpet blast releases a destructive army of 200 million riders on poisonous, fire-breathing horses. These two judgments have strong allusions to Joel 2 (compare Joel 2:3-5 to Revelation 9:7-8, 18), a chapter calling for Israel’s repentance from immorality, idolatry and injustice or face destruction by a ravaging army such as this.
Many New Testament authors read in these two trumpet-judgments the imminent invasion by the Parthian army, who were advancing East of the Roman Empire at the time of John’s writing. As mentioned in a previous post, this army was notorious for its swift and skilled horseback archers. This army would probably have been the first thought from the first readers/ hearers of John’s apocalyptic letter. But the accusation against the Roman Empire of their day is that, like Pharaoh, despite these disasters, “they did not repent” of their pagan worship, violence, witchcraft, sexual immorality or thefts. (9:20-21)
The image of God as a just, sovereign judge, pouring out his wrath in disasters, famine and war one the earth sits uncomfortably with our modern man and woman. It seems cruel. But we need to remember that judgment is good – the punishment of the oppressor leads to the deliverance of the oppressed, just like the judgment on Egypt resulted in the liberation of the Hebrews. So too the punishment of the violently oppressive Roman Empire results in the deliverance of the viciously persecuted Church. Justice leads to peace.
Herein we see a third character of God displayed in this chapter, that even in these judgments, we see God’s grace.
Yes, God is gracious! As these prayers of the saints result in acts of God’s judgment, we see that it reaps destruction in a third of the earth. Only a third. We noted in the first seven judgement described in the opening of the seals (ch 6-7) that 1/4 of the earth was touched. In the seven trumpets, 1/3 of the earth is touched (ch 8-9). When the seven bowls are poured out, we see judgment results in the final and complete destruction of the earth.
Therefore, even in these judgments, we see God’s grace at work. These judgments are redemptive in two ways: it leads to the release of God’s oppressed people and creation and calls for the repentance of the oppressive kingdoms which rebel against his benevolent rule. And repentance, yielding to God’s rule, will result in reconciliation and peace with God through the Lamb. These temporary, earthly judgments warn of eternal judgment, calling for repentance to avoid the wrath of God and the Lamb. Therefore these temporal judgments display the mercy of the “Lord (who) is patient… not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).
Bringing it home
The occurrence of natural disasters is on the increase every year, with 409 catastrophic events recorded last year. Wars are on the increase worldwide, with 832 Militias-guerrillas and terrorist-groups involved in civil wars around the world today. Revelation 8-9 depict these disasters as judgments unleashed by the Lamb, asserting his Supremacy over all creation and every nation, while revealing our fallenness and inability to assure a peaceful reign apart from God.
But in these chapters filled with judgment, we are so encouraged to see God’s compassion and attentiveness to his servants. We note the powerful impact of their prayers, resulting in God’s sovereign justice ridding the world from evil. Yet in this, we see God’s merciful patience with his enemies.
Today as we are so acutely aware of the fallenness of creation, the corruption in government, and lawlessness in our society, we are encouraged by this vision of a God who hears when we pray. We are encouraged that indeed, our prayers are liberating the world of evil. We are comforted that Christ is not outside these disasters that ravage the earth – but instead through these advancing his kingdom. Lastly, we are hopeful that these just judgments awaken individuals and nations to the sinfulness of man and the reality of God’s wrath, even as he graciously allows time for sinners to turn to Him and find mercy before the Day of his Judgment.
May this encourage your heart to pray, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
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